"Clare's Law", Domestic Violence and a little knowledge being a dangerous thing
The government is considering whether women should have the right to ask police if their partner has any violent criminal convictions. "Clare's Law" is being proposed in memory of Clare Wood, a woman who was murdered by a man she met on Facebook (a detail that isn't very pertinent but has been made much of in the press). Leading the campaign, Hazel Blears said,
“Women in Clare's situation are often unaware of their partner's previous
This makes me very sad and frustrated. Incurable Hippie has already raised some concerns. Let's break down what Blears has said here and why it misses the point on how domestic violence works:
Women in Clare's situation are often unaware of their partner's previous relationships and this can mean they start a relationship with someone with no idea if they have a violent past.
People targeted by abusive men and women are always unaware of their partner's previous relationships because abusers tell lies. Abusers are usually good liars and vulnerable people often believe those lies. Lies might include, “My ex lied to the police to get me into trouble.” Abusers are very good at telling stories about how they have been hard done by and mistreated by others because that's how they explain events to themselves, let alone everyone else.
My ex accused me of slagging him off to everyone before I had told anyone about the full extent of the abuse. When I was with him, I believed his story that I was the only person who had provoked him to violence, but with hindsight I realise this is extremely unlikely. He'd described a few previous relationships which had ended abruptly and where friends had taken sides against him. He only ever confessed to one incident, when in his youth he had hit a girlfriend when they were both drunk and she was “hysterical” and throwing things at him – it was practically self defence, but of course he felt bad about it years after. In that case, he gave his victim a black eye, so conceivably this was something I might get to hear about some day.
As far as I know, my ex has never been reported to the police for anything. The whole problem with domestic violence is that you often don't understand what is happening while it is going on and afterwards you just want to get on with your life and have nothing more to do with your abuser. Unless you are seriously injured, there are real limits to what you could do about it even if you were motivated to act. The vast majority of people who have committed violence against a partner will never have come to the attention of the police.
Clare's tragic death shows how vulnerable women aren't always protected under current law
If Clare Wood had known about the history of the man who went on to murder her, she would not have entered into a relationship with him. The question is, had this law been in place, would she have asked the police about him? Most women do have relationships with men, but how many women would actually ask police about their new partners? And how many men would feel less than very uncomfortable at the idea that their girlfriend had run a police check on them?
Even having experienced domestic violence, it would never occur to me to run a police check on any new partner. If a woman has any reason to feel suspicious about a new partner, something is very wrong. It doesn't mean the chap is a villain, but it would suggest to me that something to do with those two people is at least slightly amiss. As in, they should probably leave it there.
But there's also this issue of "vulnerable women". When I consider my own vulnerability, my big problem was that I didn't trust myself. When things went very wrong, I didn't take my own distress seriously. I let someone else tell me what was okay and what wasn't. And this new law seems to be saying,
“Ladies, do you think your new chap may be a violent bully? Don't trust your gut – ask a policeman! Has he hit you once or twice? Well not to worry your pretty little head. If he has no criminal convictions, then he's probably a perfectly nice chap and the violence is just something you bring out in him.”
Added to this is the damage even the reporting of such an idea does to gender equality. One of the reasons that domestic violence prevails is ideas about the normal behaviour of men and women. Even with everything I knew about this, even having studied psychology, part of me bought the line that my ex couldn't really help himself – I'd felt angry to the point of wanting to punch people on occasion but of course, I didn't have testosterone to contend with. We accept male anger and aggression as normal, even necessary for heroism in our cultural narratives. As a very young and inexperienced woman, I didn't know where the line was between “normal” masculine anger and aggression, and abuse. Clare's Law promotes this confusion – it promotes the idea that there's a fine line and that line is only crossed when a prosecutable crime has been committed.
And this disadvantages everyone – not only does it cast men as dangerous to women and children until proven innocent, but it affirms the idea that domestic abuse is always men beating up women. Women are vulnerable, men are dangerous and any man who finds himself being abused simply doesn't fit into this universe. Men are much less likely to die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, but they are only slightly less likely to have their lives ruined by abuse.
We need to make vulnerable people less vulnerable. We need to promote a culture in which all men and women have both the confidence and the practical and economic ability to make choices for themselves based on their own instincts and desires. The government are considering this new law, having made massive cuts to benefits, legal aid, funding to refuges and even police budgets. This government is making vulnerable adults a lot more vulnerable than they used to be – a law offering false reassurances to untrusting women is not the answer.
And, incidentally, following Clare Wood's death, the Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that she had been badly let down by the police. Not the law, but the police who are supposed to enforce it. She had reported being sexually assaulted, threatened and harassed by the man who later went on to murder her, months before he killed her. The new law would only have saved her if she was suspicious enough to run a check at a very early stage, whereas the current law should have saved her regardless.
Until women are given the right to know if their partner has a history of serial domestic abuse, they can't be sure of the risk that they face.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif
But they never can – and no-one should imagine that a police check can protect them or their children or anyone from anything. We need to address the social and cultural factors which leave some adults vulnerable, normalise intimate violence and allow abusers to get away with it. As Pippa says in her post, the idea that any woman might have her doubts about her new partner's temper, run such a check and be lulled into a false sense of security is truly terrifying.
Meanwhile, men who are a danger to women, anyone who has been repeatedly and seriously violent against anyone, perhaps shouldn't be out of prison in the first place?
And before I go, I have to say, there is nothing special about on-line relationships. People having a relationship with anyone who is outside of their existing circle of family and friends are slightly more vulnerable to villains of all variety, but there's nothing special about meeting on-line – in fact, it is possible to share several mutual friends with someone you meet on-line. Meanwhile, people get together with total strangers off-line and always have.